Risk and Society: The Interaction of Science, Technology and Public Policy

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  1. Underwood International College
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  4. Science and Technology in Society

Standards play a crucially important role in any policy system that seeks to protect the public against technological risks.

The "complicated" relationship between science and policy

Standards come in many forms. They may be applied to industrial processes, pollutants, facilities, products, equipment or vehicles, or natural media such as air and water. Standards may be used to regulate the quality of an environmental medium; control harmful discharges, emissions, and residues; establish limits for human exposure to toxic substances; specify safe usage conditions for regulated products; or influence environmentally detrimental behaviors.

In effectuating these goals, standards may directly address the design of a product or process e. They may be required by law regulatory standards , recommended by guidelines, or voluntarily adopted by industries or private standard-setting organizations consensus standards. They may be enforced through rigorous governmental monitoring and legal sanctions or through economic incentives or through relatively lax systems of self-regulation.


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From this wide range of possible variation, national policy systems often seek out some characteristic approaches to standard setting. Penalties can be harsh, sometimes in the form of criminal sanctions for corporate executives. At the other extreme, British environmental standards were at one time locally and flexibly negotiated to suit the economic and technical capabilities of particular industrial concerns. More recently, this national preference has yielded somewhat in the face of European demands for greater uniformity and accountability across member states.

With respect to enforcement, the European approach overall is less adversarial and legalistic than the American approach. Compliance tends to be achieved through bargaining and behind-the-scenes negotiation between business and government other social actors generally play little role in enforcement rather than through the Draconian processes of the law.

That differences such as those described above persist across similarly situated societies has presented a puzzle to economics and political science. Cross-national variations in risk perception and risk policy appear to contradict widely held assumptions of technical as well as economic rationality, both of which would predict greater convergence when states act upon similar information and need to balance similar trade-offs between the benefits and burdens of regulation.

To explain patterned divergences in societal responses to risk, one has to supplement theories of rational choice with approaches that focus more centrally on the public interpretation of experience—in short, to supplement studies of reason and utility with studies of culture and meaning. In particular, one has to examine the role of institutions in stabilizing particular ways of dealing with uncertainty, conflict, expertise, and participation.

Going beyond currently dominant theories that cast states as rational actors, comparative studies of risk have given rise to three main theoretical frameworks for understanding cultural variations. The first is structural. This approach places primary emphasis on the role of political organization. It is presumed that the ways in which power is formally divided in society profoundly influence public perceptions of security and insecurity and also channel governmental action in specified directions. The second framework is functional.

This approach regards all societies as encountering recurrent problems in the form of threats to their welfare or existence.

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Functionalist explanations therefore tend to see cross-cultural policy variations as by-products of differences in the perception, or framing, of social problems among different societies. The third framework is interpretive. This approach places primary emphasis on the need of societies to make sense and meaning of their collective experience, taking into account changes in knowledge and human capacity produced through science and technology.

Interpretive social theorists—including specialists in science and technology studies—are particularly interested in the instruments of meaning creation in society, including most importantly various forms of language or discourse. Each framework illuminates some of the causes of cultural variation in risk perception and risk policy, as briefly described below.

The ways in which governmental power is institutionalized influence a society's handling of risk in more or less obvious directions. At the simplest level, agencies that are responsible for both the promotion and the regulation of technology tend to be more accepting of risk than those whose mandate is limited to regulation. This is why, in , U. Similarly, the regulation of nuclear power was taken away from the old Atomic. Energy Commission and delegated to the more independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Failure to separate promotional and regulatory functions in this way arguably leads to laxer regulatory practices.

For instance, Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is widely thought to have underestimated the transmissibility of bovine spongiform encephalopathy BSE or mad cow disease because its primary goals were to help the beef industry and prevent public panic. More generally, the institutional organization of power affects the ways in which nongovernmental actors fight for particular policy objectives.

In parliamentary democracies, for example, electoral politics provides the primary avenue through which citizens can expect to influence government.

The rise of Green parties in Europe illustrates this dynamic. Environmentalists have needed to muster seats in parliament in order to press their agendas, and their success rates have differed from one country to another.

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In the United States, by contrast, local groups such as NIMBY ''not in my backyard" organizations have largely taken the place of party politics. The readiness of American citizens to form single-issue associations is historically documented. This strategy is facilitated by a "political opportunity structure" in which power over many issues is decentralized and local initiative can express itself through a variety of mechanisms, such as lawsuits, local referenda, and elections.

In countries with more hierarchical and closed decision-making processes, activist groups may be slower to form and there may be an appearance of greater trust in government.

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However, underlying such superficial political acquiescence there may be significant public alienation and distrust which can erupt into mass protest if the opportunity arises for sociological accounts of such public attitudes in Europe, see Beck, ; Irwin and Wynne, Structural divisions of power have been plausibly correlated with another aspect of national regulatory styles, namely, the degree to which decisionmakers rely on formal, objective, or quantitative justifications for their actions. In the relatively transparent and competitive U.

Indeed, the federal Administrative Procedure Act authorizes courts to review agency decisions to ensure that they are not arbitrary or capricious. Given these pressures, it is not surprising that United States policymakers have opted over time for more explicit and formal analytic techniques than their counterparts in other advanced industrial states.

Examples include quantitative risk assessment of chemical carcinogens, cost-benefit analysis of proposed projects, detailed economic analysis of regulatory impacts, and environmental equity analysis—all of which are more extensively used, and also debated, in the United States than in other liberal democracies. For all their apparent power, structural explanations have some notable deficiencies.


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  5. Because they take structures for granted, they are unable in principle to account for modification and change in institutional configurations of power. Some phenomena that have proved important in international risk debates but that elude structural analysis include the rise and transnational spread of social movements and epistemic communities groups of actors sharing similar beliefs and values about a given issue area , the shifts from one. Other types of cultural explanation have proved more helpful for these purposes.

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    Functionalist approaches, as noted above, conceive of societies as having a range of large problems that continually need to be addressed and solved for the society's general well-being. Risk could be seen as one such problem. Unmanaged risk creates situations of extreme uncertainty for citizens and undermines confidence in ruling institutions.

    Social theorists have argued that the rise of modern regulatory states was in part an answer to the risks of widespread economic and social dislocations surrounding the industrial revolution. In particular, institutions such as the insane asylum and the workhouse and social analytic techniques such as statistics and demography are thought to be instruments developed by states in order to enable and maintain policies for social order see, for instance, Foucault, ; Porter, ; Nowotny, One of the best known attempts to understand cultural variations in the management of risk arises from a blending of anthropology and political science in work initiated by Douglas and Wildavsky Cultural theorists have noted that beliefs about nature and society are encountered in some commonly recurring clusters that appear to correlate with forms of social organization.

    Three dominant belief systems about environmental problems have been described most often in the literature: catastrophist or preventivist nature is fragile ; cornucopian or adaptivist nature is robust ; sustainable developmentalist nature is robust within limits Cotgrove, ; Jamison et al. The image of nature as cornucopian has been further differentiated into the idea that natural bounty is lottery-controlled cornucopian nature is capricious or else that it is freely available nature is resilient Thompson et al.

    Cultural theory posits that these persistent forms of belief are not accidental but are connected to underlying features of social order. To explain why human views of nature, and associated views about human nature, fall into certain broad patterns, cultural theory suggests that such beliefs grow out of a need to preserve important ordering elements in social relations. Douglas , in particular, sees two cultural variables as fundamental: hierarchy within a community "grid" and the firmness of its demarcation from other communities "group". For example, bureaucratic organizations high grid and high group, in Douglas' terms are most inclined to believe that nature, though not infinitely malleable, can be managed by means of appropriate, technically grounded, and formally legitimated rules.

    Such beliefs promote this culture's interest in protecting its boundaries against outsiders, as well as in preserving its clear internal hierarchy. In contrast, market or entrepreneurial cultures low grid and low group seem more likely to. This belief is consistent with the culture's willingness to rearrange its membership and operating rules so as to make best use of changes in its environmental resources. By reducing the complexity of human-nature interactions to a few fixed types, the categories of cultural theory run up against some significant theoretical difficulties.

    It is unclear, to begin with, whether so parsimonious a notion of culture can be applied in meaningful ways to complex organizations firms, social movements , let alone to nation states. Moreover, institutions and their members appear in this framework to be inflexibly bound together in hard and fast belief systems. This rigid packaging contradicts the ambivalence and heterogeneity of response reported in the literature on risk perception and public understanding of science and technology.

    Cultural theory also resembles structural approaches in its relative insensitivity to historical processes. A functionalist notion of culture tends to take the needs of particular cultural types for granted. A bureaucracy, for instance, is always looking to maintain its hierarchical integrity, just as entrepreneurs are always seeking to maximize their profits through new modes of resource exploitation. Such assumptions are not well suited to account for large-scale social and ideological movements, such as the shift in the Western world from a pollution-centered to a sustainable developmentalist philosophy of environmental management in the s.

    Shifts within organizations are also puzzling from the standpoint of cultural theory. For example, why was there a "greening" of industry in the late twentieth century, and why did German environmentalists eventually drop their "just say no" stance toward biotechnology? Changes in scientific understanding could provide part of the answer in such cases, but science, technology, and expertise play a relatively passive or subordinate role in the cultural theory framework.

    Science is seen more as a resource to be controlled by the dominant cultural types than as a source of distinctive knowledge and persuasive power. Nonetheless, cultural theory valuably calls attention to the socially constructed character of beliefs about nature and to possible connections between longstanding social relations and the perception and management of risk. Interpretive social theory focuses from the start on the place of ideas in social life. It asks how people make sense of what happens to them, how they distinguish between meaningful and meaningless events, and how they accommodate themselves to new information or experience.

    It regards culture as the lens through which people understand their condition. This approach is centrally concerned with the origins of and changes in belief systems, including the modern belief system called science, and with the factors that make certain beliefs either unquestionable ideology or else massively resistant to modification. Accordingly, interpretive work in the social sciences has focused on the resources with which societies construct their ideas, beliefs, and.

    These include aspects of social behavior that have not been widely examined in quantitative social sciences, such as language and visual representation. An important contribution of this theoretical approach has been to show how formal systems of language and practice incorporate particular, often culturally specific, ways of looking at the world—in other words, how they help to frame both problems and solutions see, for example, Bjork, ; Litfin, Quantitative risk assessment QRA of chemicals provides an especially instructive example for our purposes.

    As noted above, this analytic technique has been more extensively used in the United States than in other industrial countries.

    Science and Technology in Society

    Its use, in turn, implies a number of prior assumptions about the nature of risk and uncertainty. QRA builds not only on seemingly objective measurements of toxicity and exposure but also, less visibly, on underlying models of causality, agency, and uncertainty. It frames the world, so that users of the technique are systematically alerted to certain features of risk but desensitized to others. Causation for purposes of QRA, for example, is generally taken to be simple, linear, and mechanistic.

    Asbestos causes cancer and dioxin causes birth defects in animals, but perhaps not in humans. The classical model of cancer risk assessment used by most U. Over the years, this causal picture has grown in complexity. An older single-hit model of carcinogenesis has been replaced by one that views cancer as a multistage process. It is recognized as well that risk is distributed over populations of varying composition and susceptibility, exposed for variable lengths of time and by multiple pathways.